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Brian Jean, former Opposition leader and unsuccessful UCP leadership contender, quits Alberta politics

Brian Jean, when he was still running for the leadership of the United Conservative Party in 2017. (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

Brian Jean -- once the leader of the Opposition and arguably the man who saved the conservative movement in Alberta from self-immolation in 2014 and 2015 -- quit politics for good yesterday.

This is the second time in his political career Jean has quit politics forever, so don't necessarily write the guy off completely.

Perhaps Jean will rise a third time as mayor of Fort McMurray just in time to reinvent it as a spaceport or a planetary centre of excellence for solar energy. I'm not entirely joking about this, even if I'm not entirely serious.

Jean had some of the essential qualities that make a successful political leader, among them personal charm and a vision of where he wanted to take his party and his own political career.

Alas, after being chosen 11th hour leader of the Wildrose Party with 55 per cent of the vote in March 2015, he proved he didn't have them all. He lacked both the ruthlessness and what we used to call stick-to-itiveness essential to being a winner in the game of politics, which he must have known is played with the elbows up.

Jason Kenney, who lacks neither of those qualities, schooled his former Harper government caucus mate in the hard realities of politics during the race to lead the United Conservative Party last year.

Jean also lacked the force of personality required to keep caucus rebels like Derek Fildebrandt under control, especially when the Wildrose Party's nutty libertarian fringe screamed at him for trying to make the rebel MLA behave. Kenney proved he could handle that challenge too last month when Fildebrandt got in trouble with the law of the land and the law of politics one too many times.

Likewise, it was Kenney, not Jean, who enjoyed the support of their boss in their Ottawa days, the still-influential former Conservative prime minster Stephen Harper.

When the UCP leadership race was over, it didn't matter that the former member of Parliament for the Athabasca and Fort McMurray-Athabasca ridings brought the Wildrose Party back from the brink in 2014, after former leader Danielle Smith had tried to lead it lemming-like into Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservative government caucus, or that he'd prevented the party from being crushed utterly in the provincial election of 2015, which could have happened.

Indeed, it lived to fight again as the UCP thanks in large part to Jean's energetic campaigning -- which was marred principally by Albertans' infatuation with Rachel Notley and her New Democrats and by his own wooden television performance, a potentially fatal flaw in this digital era.

Still, the result of the May 2015 Alberta election was none too shabby for the Wildrosers when you consider the party was on the eve of destruction when Jean reconsidered his rather mysterious decision in January 2014 to quit his once-promising federal political career and get back into politics.

Had the planets lined up a little more favourably for the scion of one of Fort McMurray's most successful families, he could easily have been premier of Alberta, later, if not sooner.

But the ruthless, focused and well-connected Kenney put paid to that dream. It was obvious from the get-go Jean stood no chance against the Kenney juggernaut. And his departure from provincial politics was pretty much a certainty from the moment he lost the UCP leadership to Kenney on Oct. 28 last year.

Jean's defeat was literally tearful, all the more stinging in that he appeared to have really persuaded himself not only that he could win, but that he was going to.

Once he had lost, the writing was on the wall. Jean was the only United Conservative MLA to decline a shadow cabinet position in Kenney's caucus -- assuming, that is, that Kenney offered him one. Kenney quickly purged Jean's supporters from the new party's staff. There was a strong sense, after the dust from the leadership race had settled, there was no love lost between the two men.

Notwithstanding that, Jean gracefully wished Kenney well in a social media post last night.

When the shadow cabinet posts were handed out, Jean said he already had an important job: serving the people of his Fort McMurray-Conklin riding. Now he has given that up too.

The reason he gave yesterday was the same as the one he gave in January 2014, when he stepped down as MP for Fort McMurray Athabasca: to spend more time with his family. He married his former Parliamentary special assistant, Kimberley Michelutti, in August 2016.

He has faced personal challenges since entering provincial politics. His 24-year-old son died of lymphoma shortly before he was chosen Wildrose leader. His family home was destroyed in the devastating Fort Mac Fire in May 2016. He recently told a local newspaper in his hometown that three family members have been diagnosed with cancer.

Premier Notley thanked Jean for his service to the province yesterday. "As former Leader of the Official Opposition, Brian Jean took over his party at a difficult time and led it ably and conducted himself in a manner that demonstrated it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable."

This seems fair, and it certainly can't be said of his successor as Opposition leader.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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